Pet of the Day

July 8, 2000

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Sparky, the Pet of the Day
Name: Sparky
Age: Four and a half years old
Gender: Male
Kind: Vietnamese Pot-bellied Pig
Home: Oceanside, California, USA
   Our adult son always had a fascination with pigs. He suspects that may be because he has survived since less than three years of age by taking daily injections of PORK insulin. Swine are extremely close to humans genetically, with almost identical endocrine, digestive and other systems, making their insulin the closest match to humans. (Our son was one of the last converts to the new lab-made human insulin.) So one Christmas Eve we picked Sparky up from a farm just outside San Diego. At that time, he was just a little ball that could sit on my arm between my elbow and my wrist. We managed to hide him -- and his squeals -- that night; he was handed to our son the next morning inside a large Christmas stocking.

    We knew pigs were said to be the third most intelligent species, after humans and apes; but we were shocked at just how smart Sparky is. He was kitty-box trained in two days, and he acted modest about being watched in the box! (He was easily leash trained for necessary walks when he got too large for any box.) He learned things like managing the two flights of stairs in our condo by clearly using a method of trial & error, followed by an analysis of the situation, then by trying again. He attached himself to us emotionally, albeit narcissistically, right away. I gained more understanding of the factors involved in learning and cognition by watching him than I had in all my related graduate courses. Being around as his language skills developed, I found that the pitch, volume, length and tone of each grunt and higher-pitched 'whine' clearly has a specific meaning. We were told Sparky would reach 60 to 70 pounds; he passed that in four months! At one year of age we saw others from his litter; they were bigger than expected, but much smaller than Sparky. He just somehow got the 'big' gene! Well, my parents didn't throw my brother out because he passed 6'5", and Sparky was just another member of the family when he passed 150 pounds. (I've just not bothered to find out how much he really weighs for the last 3+ years!) He is now living where he has a large grassy yard to wander around, although he piggishly sleeps about 70% of the time. He is nearly blind because of excess growth around his eyes; surgery did not do much to correct the problem. We can't help but laugh a little when he bumps into things; luckily he has the thick pig skin and snout. We just pat him on the head for encouragement and make sounds to guide him.

    He's quite a conversation piece in our newly developed, average, middle-class suburban neighborhood, as you would suspect. To my surprise, the first question we are always asked is what he eats! Most people just haven't noticed that your neighborhood PetSMart and any farm/feed store carries $7.00, 20 pound bags of pot-bellied pig pellet food; he just eats about two cups a day, making him much cheaper to feed than a dog or cat. I always add the more interesting facts like that pigs are so closely related to humans, and that they are the only animals other than humans that sunburn, etc. Being an animal of prey - and blind - he is naturally wary of strangers, so we can't let others in the yard unless we keep a close eye on him. But he loves to get attention from us; he 'speaks' to us constantly, clearly believing we understand every sound (word?) he makes. He's like a permanent two-year old... narcissistic but loving. I really feel that having him helped me regain the patience and understanding I needed when my young granddaughter moved in!

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